Recalling the ABC Movie of the Week

September 23, 1969 was the airdate of the first program officially branded an ABC Movie of the Week. The premiere film was a thing called Seven in Darkness, about a plane full of blind people who crash in the jungle and collectively have to grope their way back to civilization. It starred no less than Milton Berle, Arthur O’Connell, Barry Nelson, Dina Merrill, Alejandro Rey, and Leslie Ann Warren. And, that, friends, set the tone for all that followed over the next six years. Breathtakingly surreal casts combining celebrities from all walks of show business, past, present, and future, including at times quite distinguished ones, as if in conscious effort to make the proceedings more insane. And the premises were always way over the top. The most memorable tended to be science fiction or horror, lots and lots of paranormal stories, sometimes there were sick Hitchcock style thrillers in the true crime vein of Psycho, and tabloid style things yanked from the days headlines. Anyway, I cut my teeth on these movies, which debuted when I was between the ages of four and ten, and were often rerun in the years that followed. Technically, it wasn’t a “series” per se. We certainly didn’t think of it as such at the time. Yes, it was branded, but each presentation was produced and directed by different people, and as far as I know no one was at the creative helm overall beyond programming executives. Still, in retrospect, this collection of over 250 telefilms seems to cohere into a thing as a product with a voice, with a distinct identity. For a long time, they were synonymous with “cheesy”. When I watch them now, they feel solid and well-made and formative not unlike the anthology series of Rod Serling, or the NBC Mystery Movie.

I’ve seen perhaps a quarter of these films, from what I can glean by scanning a list of the titles. I’ve written about several — just follow the links below to read my reviews and recaps. The ones that made the biggest impressions are naturally the ones I watched upon their premieres, when I was very young. Later, I saw many on Youtube or pirated DVDs, and I highly recommend that you do so as we go into the Halloween season.

Some of the most famous include the kids film The Point (2/2/71) featuring the Nilsson song “Me and My Arrow”, the early Steven Spielberg thriller Duel (11/13/71), the weepy football bio-pic Brian’s Song (11/30/71), the LSD freak-out classic Go Ask Alice (1/24/73), the Love Story rip-off She Lives! (9/12/73) with its Jim Croce theme song “Time in a Bottle”, the Joan Rivers-penned black comedy The Girl Most Likely To (11/6/73), which put Stockard Channing on the map, and Dan Curtis’s notorious Trilogy of Terror (3/4/75) with Karen Black.

The ABC Movie of the Week was also used as a springboard for series pilots. Shows that were tried out there that later becames series included The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, The Night Stalker, Starsky and Hutch, Kung Fu, Matt Helm, The Rookies, Swiss Family Robinson, Toma, Get Christie Love, Alias Smith and Jones, Longstreet, and The Young Lawyers. Gene Roddenberry also premiered his second pilot for his series Planet Earth with John Saxon, Janet Margolin, Ted Cassidy and Diana Muldauer, but it didnt get picked up.

Some others we’ve written about The Over the Hill Gang (9/23/69) and its sequel The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (11/17/70), Haunts of the Very Rich (9/20/72), The Devil’s Daughter (1/9/73), Satan’s School for Girls (9/19/73), Isn’t it Shocking? (10/2/73), The Third Girl from the Left (10/16/73), Scream Pretty Peggy (11/24/73); Heat Wave (1/26/74), and Hurricane (9/10/74).

I can also recommend, with varying degrees of a straight face: Daughter of the Mind (9/9/69, based on the Paul Gallico book The Hand of Mary Constable); How Awful About Allan (9/22/70, from the folks who brought you What’s the Matter with Helen?); the James Bond style romp Madame Sin (1/15/72) with Bette Davis as a lady Dr. No style character; Moon of the Wolf (9/26/72) with the perennial David Janssen and Barbara Rush (spoiler: she’s the werewolf); the all-star slasher thriller Home for the Holidays (11/28/72); Don’t Be Afraid Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) with Kim Darby; The President’s Plane is Missing (10/23/73); The Cat Creature (12/11/73); Pioneer Woman (12/19/73) with Joanna Pettet and William Shatner); the not-to-be-believed Killdozer (1/2/74) with Clint Walker; the inevitable Killer Bees (2/26/74); The Gun and the Pulpit (4/3/74) with Marjoe Gortner; the Earthquake exploiting The Day the Earth Moved (9/18/74); the Rosemary’s Baby ripoff The Stranger Within (10/1/74) with Barbara Eden; Satan’s Triangle (1/14/75) which fed off the Bermuda Triangle mania of the 1970s; and The Hatfields and the McCoys (1/15/75).

Also of note: two Gidget sequels: Gidget Grows Up (12/30/69) with Karen Valentine; and Gidget Gets Married (1/4/72) with Monie Ellis. BTW, Sally Field was in plenty of these ABC TV movies — I don’t know why she’s not in these Gidget sequels. Too busy with The Flying Nun? I’ll bet that’s it.